By Noel B. Vera
The Lost City of Z
Directed by James Gray
YOU WONDER looking at James Gray’s New York-based dramas where the producers got the idea he was the perfect director to transform David Grann’s nonfiction The Lost City of Z — about Percy Fawcett’s quest for a long-lost South American city — into a feature film. You wonder furthermore where Gray got the balls to think he could blithely sail into the same territory staked out by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, or better yet Werner Herzog in Aguirre the Wrath of God. Gray’s film condenses the book considerably or so I’m told (have not read it): Fawcett (Charles Hunnam) stages three expeditions instead of eight; a companion named Costin (Robert Pattinson, unrecognizably hirsute) is cobbled together from several characters; a straightforwardly linear narrative is fashioned with speculations (What happened to him?), investigations (Does his city exist?), and the author’s own attempt at recreation (of Fawcett’s journey) all lopped off.
But wait! According to writer-explorer John Hemming, Fawcett may not be the great explorer we thought he was, with Grann’s descriptions of his exploits largely exaggerated. Gray responds to these charges and, yes, invokes The Shakespeare Defense (“I will rescind all of my criticisms of the writers of those pieces if they go to performances of Richard III and they boo Shakespeare for his historical inaccuracies”). He does have a point: a filmmaker should be allowed some measure of artistic license.
But matters turn stranger still: Jason Colavito notes that Fawcett may have been an advocate of Theosophy, that when he presented his findings to the Royal Geographic Society (a scene depicted in the film) he was jeered not for racist reasons (well not just for racist reasons) but because his theories were considerably more bizarre than either Grann or Gray were willing to depict. For Fawcett, Z was “an outpost of the extraterrestrial gods who came to earth in deepest prehistory, akin to the ‘first rock cities’ the Lemurians built.”
Listening to Fawcett (by way of Colavito) you can’t help but think him closer in spirit to Herzog’s Aguirre than originally thought. Then again (going off on the limited evidence available) Aguirre was left standing alone and insane on a raft full of monkeys (think Leland’s post-election rebuke to Kane) spinning down a river; he had no choice but to express himself in a stream of near-visionary ravings. Fawcett’s theories sound like a cross between Aguirre’s rants and the fanciful fabrications of Baron Munchausen — he believed in them (probably) but his beliefs were more “scraps of myth and legend,” dressed “in the language of science.”
Looking at the filmmaker’s reply to Hemming’s criticism Gray (in a Cinema Scope interview) seems aware of this aspect of Fawcett’s life (the racism, the outre mysticism), but deliberately downplayed them. Why? Well…
All you really need to do is look at the film. Hunnam’s Fawcett is a strangely subdued character, physically charismatic but without the bug-eyed intensity of Kinski’s Aguirre. Of Aguirre’s background we know little: he’s a military officer, with high enough rank to bring his daughter along, enough courage to win the respect of others — that’s about it. Hunnam’s Fawcett has visible carefully cultivated roots: we know his father was an embarrassment to the Royal Geographic Society, we know Fawcett himself was a career officer with surveyor’s training, we even have a sense of what his family is like, from his wife Nina (a strong Sienna Miller) to his children including eldest Jack (played as young man by Tom Holland).
Where Aguirre is a fire-eating phantasm, dragging the weight of Western Europe’s sins behind him, Fawcett is — at least as Gray conceives him — a fairly reasonable, more-progressive-than-usual figure, both feet planted firmly stubbornly in soil.
Except Nina in one powerful scene demands an equality Percy’s not prepared to give; except the jungle has a hold on the man he’s unable to shake off; except son Jack resists his father in ways the latter can’t really reprimand, because they both know who’s to blame.
Call Gray and Hunnam’s (a joint effort if there ever was one) Fawcett a moderate creation — moderately intelligent, moderately imaginative, moderately passionate — who is slowly surely consumed by his jungle obsession, all the while aware of what said consummation is costing him and his loved ones.
Call this film a struggle between class-conscious England and tribalist Amazon, between Fawcett’s band of tight-knit brothers and his loving (best they can) family, between 21st century style elliptical narrative and ’70s-style 35-mm filmmaking.
Call this in effect a James Gray film, where material has been trimmed and sutured (or if you like hacked and crammed) together to form an entirely new organism. In glorious color by the great Darius Khondji (who had previously done Gray’s The Immigrant, and worked for Woody Allen, David Fincher, Wong Kar-wei, and Jean-Pierre Juenet among others).
Call this the result of Gray flinging two worlds together in violent collision (Collusion?), creating a middle ground where both exist in constantly seething uneasy equilibrium. Creative modulation or mediocre hackwork? I say the former but — go see the film, decide for yourself.